Adventures in the New Humanities: Aren’t you CURI-ous?
This post is part of a blog series, ‘Adventures in the New Humanities,’ by Judy Kutulas, the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities.
The moment that really clinched the idea of becoming a professional historian for me occurred in the scariest part of the old library stacks at the University of California, Berkeley. I was researching what would become my honors thesis on Woodrow Wilson and the Russian Civil War when I realized that this was how I wanted to spend the rest of my life (albeit perhaps in an archive where you didn’t worry about turning a corner and encountering the ghost of researchers past). I was tracking down a lead from a professor I was working with — someone who met with me weekly, listened to my ideas, and gave me feedback. I was a first-generation college student at a big university, and until that term really had no idea what college professors did.
Lots of our students want a version of that experience. They want to work with a professional and engage in some of the research practices of their chosen disciplines. Years ago St. Olaf College evolved a structure so students could have that opportunity: the Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program. CURI provides opportunities for St. Olaf students from all academic disciplines to gain an in-depth understanding of a subject by working closely with a St. Olaf faculty member in a research framework.
Lots of our students want to work with a professional and engage in some of the research practices of their chosen disciplines. Years ago St. Olaf College evolved a structure so students could have that opportunity: the Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program.
We in the humanities have been slow to jump on the CURI bandwagon, generally because we imagine that CURI follows what we humanists think of as a “science model” for research.
I’ve been pondering this “science model” for a while now, trying to figure out what it means. Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies Kathy Tegtmeyer Pak, who is also the director of the CURI program, reminded me that nobody adds students “seamlessly” to a research agenda, whether or not they work in a lab. Scientists, too, she observes, “have to be creative and flexible” and find a productive “research relationship” with collaborators. So, actually, it’s not the “science model” that makes us hang back from CURI so much as the “collaborating” part of Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry. We’ve got the research and inquiry parts, so, logically, what else is left?
And, to be fair, collaboration was not part of our faculty training. Some of us worked for — but not with — professors as grad students. Humanities dissertations are solo activities. Most of our teaching is done individually, although I can’t help but notice that people who’ve taught in the college’s Conversations Programs do seem more likely to CURI, like Associate Professor of History Anna Kuxhausen and Professor of History Tim Howe, both of whom have experience collaborating through the Great Conversation. The National Endowment for the Humanities is so eager to nudge us into collaboration that they even have fellowships to encourage us to work together.
St. Olaf Professor of Religion DeAne Lagerquist, a veteran of several CURI summers, emphasizes that we should just recognize upfront that collaboration with students will be new for most humanists and a bit intimidating because we have to figure out how to make collaboration work for us, just like the scientists do.
DeAne suggested that we should imagine our projects needing particular student talents and then look for students with those skills in order to better aim for true collaboration. These might include language/translation abilities, statistical skills, or, best of all, digital nativism. That’s what I would regard as the classical CURI exchange — our disciplinary expertise coupled with our students’ digital fluency. Here’s our chance to get digital savvy in exchange for introducing our collaborators to our professions. Great bargain!
Everybody I talked to about CURI in the humanities used words like “public” or “digital” to describe their subjects. This is not to say there weren’t some traditional scholarly projects aimed at our disciplinary audiences destined for journals or life as monographs. Along the way, though, people conceived of side projects like websites or annotated bibliographies or mapping projects. DeAne thought it was useful to have something public and completable within the summer timetable.
Yet don’t underestimate the value of intermediate-stage collaboration. Students bring fresh eyes to old research. I know because two CURI students spent part of last summer in my basement evaluating and organizing old photocopies with my husband, Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald. He’d amassed over 30 years of information on Reconstruction in Alabama and he and his students combed the “archive” for his most recent project, locating relevant materials, digitizing and annotating them. He’s, shall we say, organizationally challenged; they found imposing logic and order intellectually satisfying.
Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein has led multiple CURI teams in work on the Musical Geography Project, which explores “the intersections of space, time, and sound through map-centered investigations of music and musicians.” Here’s what he said about his ongoing CURI project:
“I’ve had specific, factual questions that could only be answered by a team of people sifting through an enormous amount of archival material. Such questions lend themselves well to mentored undergraduate research because I can tell everyone what we’re looking for (performances of a particular composer’s music), direct them to specific resources (digitized historical newspapers and certain physical archival collections that I happen to have), and provide a specific framework for presenting the results of the overall research (digital mapping), not just the very narrow answer I’m looking for. I’ve also made the research iterative in the sense that from the moment we started researching ‘Musical Geography,’ I knew that we would spend several summers in a row working on the project, finding different use cases for digital mapping, building and rebuilding our website, etc. So I felt like I was making an investment in a long-term scholarly project, which has developed into a secondary research area for me, as well as answering more immediate questions.”
Doesn’t he make it all sound so simple, logical, and productive? And please notice how “factual” quickly became more complicated and interpretive in his narrative. Just like any of us do as we begin a new project, our summer students gain experience with practice, but also expertise. They learn how to distinguish that relevant performance or basement document from the less important. They begin to see patterns. They start to gain the ability to make expert judgments.
Louis also pointed out that students’ lack of deep training within a discipline brought new ways of thinking to projects, something that virtually everybody who has done CURI seconded. Here is another way collaboration works best when partners bring different skill sets. Disciplinary expertise, Louis reminded me, is just habits of mind that have been developed within disciplinary parameters. Sometimes those habits of mind put us in thinking ruts that students can jolt us out of. DeAne also suggested that student collaborators also represent that ideal audience of non-specialists who can keep a project accessible to the nonspecialist.
Problem-solving. It’s what all CURI projects involve. We teach our students to problem-solve in our classes, often collaboratively. Problem-solving is a skillset, applying logic and process and critical thinking all at once. We are all problem-solvers.
We teach our students to problem-solve in our classes, often collaboratively. Problem-solving is a skillset, applying logic and process and critical thinking all at once. We are all problem-solvers.
Those of us faculty members thinking about CURI as a summer possibility should approach our applications as problems to solve, considering how best to fuse our expertise with some students’. Maybe it’s reverse-engineering from an end-of-summer outcome, a website, a bibliography, a collection of documents, some meta-data, a translation, or some oral histories.
Problem-solving encourages us to think about steps or phases or otherwise more-manageable, less-intimidating parts of a whole. It shifts our attention to process.
And notice how Louis has a longer-term goal in mind along with shorter-term ones. Think of CURI as a way station, one that will give you a concrete mark to hit and a good likelihood of hitting it on time. Cue “The Hallelujah Chorus.”
I would also like to remind all humanists contemplating CURI who were like me as an undergraduate — clueless but interested in what people in my discipline did — to consider sharing your profession with a student.
Associate Professor of English Becca Richards approached her CURI project last summer, which focused on investigating how video games engage players in digital literacy skills that are similar to or divergent from print-based texts, as an opportunity to mentor students to, in effect, invite them to be part of her world for a time. She thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration and learned so much from working with students that she said she would “do it again in a heartbeat.” And it is affirming for us and valuable for them when we can do those mentoring things like taking summer charges to archives, introducing them to professional colleagues, or just meeting with them as equals at the Cage (I saw you, Becca, all summer long!). Relax— it’s summer, so don’t think of CURI as work. Think of it as an opportunity to grow as a humanist, a teacher, a mentor, and a person.
But think of it now because the deadline for applications is December 4. Apply today!
Judy Kutulas is a professor of history at St. Olaf College, where she teaches in the History Department and the American Studies program, along with American Conversations. She is the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, charged with helping to revitalize humanities teaching and learning at the college. Read her inaugural ‘Adventures in the New Humanities’ blog post here.